You’ll never see a clearer example of academic blindness than Revolution, capital-R. You’d think this would be a rich field of study. How do revolutions start? Are there commonalities? What kind of person becomes a revolutionary? Do revolutions all follow a similar pattern, or are they all unique? History, political science, sociology, applied psych, economics… all of these disciplines have insights to contribute. Or so you’d think. But while there are zillions of books written on almost every conceivable aspect of each individual revolution, small-r, the big-R topic is (in the academic term d’art) severely under-theorized.
So I guess it’s up to us.
First, let’s distinguish between a revolt, a civil war, and a revolution. A revolt is basically a large-scale, somewhat-organized riot. Revolts of sufficient size and complexity become civil wars when they aim for a wholesale change of government. A revolution, by contrast, aims at a total transformation of society. It is fundamentally ideological, in the way the others aren’t (though, of course, revolts that become civil wars can morph into full-scale revolutions).
The ideological dimension is key. The Middle Ages were full of revolts. The English Peasants’ Revolt, aka Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, is a good example. Wat Tyler had some enumerated gripes — tax relief and whatnot — but did not aim at a change in government, much less a fundamental restructuring of society. Like most rebels in all times and places, Tyler’s people seemed to believe that the head of government was blameless. King Richard II, a minor at the time, was held to be the victim of evil councilors — a standard rebel trope. The Peasant’s Revolt was also a success (though it didn’t work out so well for Tyler personally) — they got most of what they wanted. They achieved pretty much all it is possible to achieve without a full-scale civil war.
The Middle Ages also had a few incidents that you could probably call civil wars. The Wars of the Roses, for example, which are (probably, in some cases) examples of revolts mutating into civil wars… if in fact, it rose to that level.* Rome, of course, had umpteen civil wars in its long history, which raises the fascinating question of whether or not it’s really possible to have a civil war below a certain level of political sophistication…. fascinating, but unanswerable by me, and not really germane. The point is, civil wars aimed only at a change in leadership, leaving the underlying governmental structure intact. Furius Malcontentus thought he could do a better job as Emperor than Lazius Incumbentus, and got a few legion commanders to agree with him. Medieval and Early Modern civil wars (if, again, there really were any) aimed at the same thing the Roman civil wars did: Replacing one branch of the ruling family with another.
(Part II coming soon).